Monday, May 18, 2015

SOFLA Travelogue 1880s: Of fishing, sailing, an earthquake and more …

Wonderland, by
George Potter of Lake Worth

 By Jane Feehan

In the late 1870s, Ohio physician James A. Henshall (1836-1925) urged a few “chronic” patients from Kentucky who lived on fried food to improve their health by joining him on a trip to South Florida. A “plain diet, pure air and bright sunshine” would go far in curing their ills.

Henshall had been to Palatka and St. Augustine but never south of those towns. He could not find anything to read about South Florida so decided to write of his travels during the winters of 1879-1880 and 1880-1881. What resulted was probably the first travelogue for the area, Camping and Cruising in Florida.  The book provides a vivid snapshot of wild and settler life in the early days of Florida development.

This post will focus on his first Southeast Florida journey.

Henshall and his party traveled aboard his boat, Blue Wing, from Titusville, at the head of the Indian River, to Biscayne Bay on that first expedition. They camped, hunted, fished and visited a few Houses of Refuge along the coast where they made friends and picked up a few travel tips.
Blue Wing, by George Potter

Some of Henshall’s highlights include remarks about:
  • The two best harbors - the Hillsboro Inlet and New River (today Port Everglades), reached from the “outside” or ocean instead of the conventional interior route;
  • Hunting and dining on deer, possum, ducks, squirrels and fish;
  • Bass fish aplenty (“too good of a good thing”) at the south branch of St. Lucie River; bits of white cloth used successfully as bait;
  • Sea cows (manatees) spotted in St. Lucie River and shares a story about Captain Estes who shipped two sea cows to Philadelphia for the Centennial Expo where they died in a fire opening day;
  • Redfish near Merritt Island 20 pounds and more;
  • Sharks, pompano, drum fish, green turtles, oysters, bluefish, kingfish and crabs in or just "outside" Lake Worth in the ocean;
  • Lake Worth residents (25 families on east side of the lake) who say the climate there is better than that of Southern Italy. They grow pineapples, coconuts, sugarcane;
  • Thousands of green turtles (20-200 pounds) caught, held in pens and shipped north each year;
  • New River (winding through downtown Fort Lauderdale today) … “the straightest, deepest and finest river I have ever seen in Florida.” Thousands of fish visible in its clear, amber-colored waters, include an abundance of Crevalles (jacks) 10-30 pounds. Also largest alligator (12 feet) of the trip spotted in New River;
  • The beauty and silence of the Everglades and its friendly Seminoles;
  • Their experience of an earthquake Jan. 12, 1879 at 11:30 p.m., which threw oil out of the lamp of the Jupiter Lighthouse and shook its brick foundation (one of several recorded in Florida and was felt for 25,000 square miles);
  • Jupiter Lighthouse, which provides “one of the grandest and wildest views of land and water in Florida.” (It still does);
  • The Biscayne Bay area, with fewer than 30 residents, is cooler in summer than any other portion of Florida because of the trade winds. It does  not get as hot as New York City. One day it will be a “popular health resort or sanitarium.” (Today the Magic City and Miami Beach lie at the bay's edgesanitariums indeed.)
An avid angler, Henshall is chock full of fish tales—the kind that would have today’s anglers pining for time travel.

Current Fort Lauderdale resident, famed fisherman and author Steve Kantner says fishing is not the sport it used to be because of one thing: habitat destruction. Pollution from development and  over-population has affected natural environments.

It’s interesting to note that Henshall did not mention tarpon in New River. Kantner, also known as the Landcaptain, caught one weighing 135 pounds; others have landed giants of 200 pounds.  (See link below to view his book.)

"Fishing in Lake Worth or in the ocean “outside”remains remarkable," said Kantner. "That’s because only one canal, the C-16, pours into it and the Gulfstream flows closest to that area." The Landcaptain knows of one fisherman who snagged a tuna in the Lake Worth lagoon.

Fishing there may one day be closer to what it was in Henshall's time. Plans are underway to restore the salinity and original habitat of Lake Worth.  

Dr. Henshall, who has since been referred to as the “apostle of the black bass,” left medicine to write several other books on fishing, some included in the American Sportsman’s Library. His Camping and Cruising in Florida (see link below to view book) remains the centerpiece of his legacy. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

James Alexander Henshall, M.D., Cruising and Camping in Florida. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1884
Kantner, Steve. Ultimate Guide to Fishing South Florida on Foot. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2014.

Tags: Florida travel, Florida fishing, Steve Kantner, Florida history

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